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Why peer support could play a role in tackling unemployment: the Peer Support Employment Groups Evaluation

There are no easy solutions to long-term unemployment but peer support could help, says Dan Robotham

Photo by Mary Taylor from Pexels

Dan Robotham

Aside from loss of income, one of the most damaging impacts of unemployment is how it can erode confidence and restrict opportunities. For many, long periods of unemployment have far reaching effects on health, wellbeing and self-worth.

No easy solutions to long-term unemployment

I have been fortunate enough to have only experienced short periods of unemployment in my adult life. These periods were never enjoyable. I could feel my confidence ebbing with every passing day.

Over the years working in mental health, I have met many people who have spent significantly longer periods of time unemployed, many of whom are registered as disabled and receiving disability benefits. I have seen how difficult the route back to employment can be for people in this situation.

There are no easy solutions to long-term unemployment. The issues go beyond the individual. They include systemic and structural barriers. Those structural barriers are sometimes hidden.

Employers are required to abide by the Equality Act (2010), to ensure they do not discriminate against people with certain ‘protected characteristics’ (including age, race and disability among others). Still, recruiters are encouraged to probe unexplained gaps in a candidate’s work history and seek personal references if in doubt.

Processes like this are not inherently contradictory to the Act but lead to grey areas where discrimination can happen. For example, a recruiter could (illegally) use a candidate’s long period of absence (due to sickness or disability) as a proxy to discriminate on the grounds of disability.

Understanding the nuances

An understanding of these nuances, such as employee rights in relation to the Equality Act, must be woven into employment services. I have evaluated several employment services during my time at McPin, including two services which were funded by the Building Better Opportunities (BBO) programme (administered by the European Social Fund and the National Lottery Community Fund).

The aim of the programme was to “invest in local projects tackling the root causes of poverty, promoting social inclusion and driving local jobs and growth”. This implies a focus on root societal causes as well as individual factors.

The benefits of peer support

McPin developed the evaluation for the Peer Support Employment Groups project, run by Mind. The idea was to provide peer support for people seeking employment, helping them to meet others who were in a similar situation, to understand and discuss employment rights with each other (and with their employment advisor, based at their local Mind).

This is a good idea in principle. Many participants in this project had bad experiences with previous employers, who may have used exploitative or bullying tactics. Many also mentioned how their personal networks had shrunk during their period of unemployment. This led to reduction in confidence, making their employment journey even more difficult. Peer support employment groups might be one way to mitigate against some of these difficulties and help people build confidence.  

The wider context for employment outcomes

All BBO-funded projects had targets to find jobs for people on their caseload. The depth of the difficulties facing people accessing the project made these targets more difficult to reach. Ten years of austerity has driven more people into unemployment and has made it more difficult for people to find work (a process that has since been exacerbated by the pandemic).

Unemployment is difficult to solve when there are fewer jobs around, since the number of jobs available must match the number of potential employees. The types of jobs offered need to match employee’s skills and career interests, too. Therefore, measuring the employment outcomes for a peer support employment programme does not tell the whole story.

A key part of the solution

Finding work for people may be difficult, but peer support employment groups may help people expand their networks and understand their rights, as well as understand how they can access workplace support for reasonable adjustments.

Peer support services have a long history in mental health. They are inexpensive, and often work best in an informal context. Having seen the Peer Support Employment Groups project in action, I am convinced that peer support (specific to employment) can be beneficial for people seeking work after a long period of unemployment.

This is never going to be the full solution to a systemic problem. Further engagement will always be needed with employers, helping to place people into jobs. However, given the complexity of the problem of long-term unemployment in society, peer support must be part of the solution.

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Dan Robotham is Deputy Research Director at McPin.

Read the full evaluation here, and a related blog from a McPin Senior Researcher about imposter syndrome at work here.